Peter Serkin at 71: Still Evolving, Still Surprising

92nd Street “Y”, New York, NY; December 1 , 2018—Peter Serkin’s Mozart interpretations have always stood out for their intimacy, transparency, and classical reserve. These characteristics certainly revealed themselves in the opening half of Serkin’s 92nd Street “Y” recital, along with a pronounced freedom and intensification of detail.

Unlike pianists who play the B minor Adagio on a grand dramatic scale, Serkin illuminates the music’s fragile aura and extraordinary harmonic daring with subtle tempo modifications and vocally oriented phrasing. Bass lines were not points of gravity, but rather ethereal distant bells. Serkin’s conception of the B-flat Sonata K. 570 has grown more internalized and refined since his long-unavailable mid-1980s recording for the Pro-Arte label. Both first-movement themes, for example, were markedly contrasted, while careful scaling of dynamics within a constricted parameter differentiated the slow movement’s closely voiced counterpoint. Yet some of the finale’s emphatic accents and asymmetric phrase shaping bordered on fussy, as if Serkin was working a little too hard to make points.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations dominated the concert’s second half. Because the printed program indicated an estimated 70-minute running time, I anticipated that Serkin would observe all of the repeats. As it happened, he ignored many of them, but chose to repeat both A and B sections of the opening Aria. Serkin treated the latter in a far more improvisatory fashion than I’ve heard him do in concert and on disc, extending certain notes with long ornamental tails, and liberally embellishing along the way. In most of the cross-handed variations (originally intended for two harpsichord manuals), Serkin generated tension by playing quietly, often downplaying the right hand while unearthing commonly hidden melodic fragments in the left, channeling his still-awesome technical mastery toward musical ends. Sometimes the pianist’s contrapuntal acumen yielded peculiar results. To cite one instance, he laid heavily upon Variation Three’s canonic entrances, emphatically unfolding the two upper voices, while the detached bass line accompaniment quietly murmured in the background.

On the other hand, Variation Fifteen (the canon at the fifth) sang forth so beautifully that it sounded more like a motet than a keyboard piece. The triple-meter Variation Nineteen was a model of control and limpid grace. Serkin saved his most outgoing and energetic pianism of the evening with a brisk, boisterous, and startlingly evocative rendition of the Variation Thirty Quodlibet, followed by a more direct, less ruminative reprise of the Aria (this time without repeats). It was difficult to ascertain a unifying game plan in Serkin’s overall approach to the Goldbergs, although he linked certain variations by way of common tempo relationships. Yet it’s perfectly clear that Serkin’s more than 50-year relationship with Bach’s potentially overplayed masterpiece continues to evolve and surprise.